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How Long Is a Racehorse’s Comeback Trail?

Kanthaka finishing second by an eyelash in the Grade 1 Jaipur Stakes after a year on the sidelines.

By Jeff Lowe

Tom Petty was right, the waiting is the hardest part. When a racehorse owner has a horse who needs a break from training, anticipation builds, and an owner understandably is eager for progress … and a timeline—how long til my horse will be back to the races?

Well we know by now that shortcuts never work, and so a general rule of thumb is three months of preparation once the horse is back under tack. Some horses take a little longer, maybe if they are on the larger side and need more work to achieve race fitness. Horses who have raced already usually take less time to get “race fit” again after a break and lighter-framed horses, naturally, don’t have as many pounds to shed as they crank bank up.

Another consideration is whether or not a horse is returning after rehabbing from an injury or if they are just getting back into the swing of things from a freshening, not due to a physical issue. Every horse is an individual and a good trainer will use his years of experience to custom tailor a fitness program to his or her horse. If a horse is coming back from a serious physical issue, trainers will often be quite conservative and space works out on purpose and use long gallops promote fitness. Whereas you see others who require a steady series of weekly speedwork drills before they are ready to face the starter.

Once the fitness building is done, sometimes the timing of a comeback race is at the mercy of the racetrack: say, if your horse gets revved up and is sitting on go but the condition book comes out and there is no suitable race for several more weeks.

With a turf horse, you are especially vulnerable to a moving target if your race comes off the turf, or since grass races tend to draw bigger fields, if you wind up on the also-eligible list.

With a stakes horse, a trainer can be more precise, knowing for months in advance what the stakes schedule will be. He or she can circle a race, knowing it will be run on that date, and work backwards on a preparation schedule. With non stakes horse, it’s not that easy. You could have a maiden whose sweet spot you think is a flat mile on the dirt. He or she is ready to go, you open the condition book, and nothin’. That’s when pivoting and being flexible is important. You might enter them in a six-furlong sprint off the bench just to “get a race into them” (often a race is equivalent to 2-3 works fitness wise) or you may decide to be patient and check out other venues. Again, every horse is individual and we try to avoid “running just to run” if we can help it.

But three months of training, in general, is about right.

So what do those three months look like?

The first step with the tack on is walking (or in some instances low-impact exercise on the underwater treadmill), but horses with previous experience move up pretty quickly, within a week or two, to jogging. They usually jog for a few weeks and on to galloping for several weeks to achieve a foundation leading up to speed work.

Almost every horse will breeze three furlongs a couple times as they start to get serious. From there, things will vary, depending on the trainer and especially based on the horse’s distance preference. Half-mile works are usually central to the regimen for a sprinter, but we have certainly witnessed exceptions. Instinctive Rhythm logged five half-mile breezes this summer leading up to his second-place finish going six furlongs at Saratoga off the layoff for George Weaver. On the other hand, Graham Motion focused on stamina with Kanthaka, who worked five furlongs twice and even went seven furlongs (longer than the race distance) as he got ready for a second-place finish in the Grade 1 Jaipur Stakes run at six furlongs on the turf. One of the reasons Graham focused on longer works with Kanthaka is that the gelding is known for getting very aggressive in company. Sometimes a stiff half-mile work in company is similar to fitness gained as a longer solo work.

Galilean can go either way, he won stakes sprinting and around two turns this year, and John Sadler prepared him last winter with seven workouts (same number as Kanthaka), including two going five furlongs and one at six furlongs. Watch Galilean win the California Dreamin’ Stakes this summer. Trainers in California are better known for putting six-furlong workouts into their horses than trainers on the East Coast.

We all love action, but for one reason or another most horses need a break during their careers. On the comeback trail, a well-laid plan is a beautiful thing.

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